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Saturday, 18 July 2015

Of Quotas and Locking Out – Europe’s Asylum and Refugee Policy

Last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel had to face an unexpected and awkward moment for her. During a public television debate on asylum and refugee policy, the small 14 years old Palestinian girl Reem Sahwil asked her why she (who speaks flawless German almost without accent) and her family might be deported back to Lebanon, although her family was fully integrating in Germany and she was attending school. Merkel answered that “sometimes politics can be very hard” and “that not everyone can come and stay”. The answer came right afterwards, Reem started to cry live before the cameras. Overwhelmed with this unexpected situation, Merkel started to pet her.

Reactions in social media were twofold; between praising Merkel’s sympathy for Reem, and massive criticism for her tactless answer to Reem’s question. What it also showed was how controversial the entire topic of refugees coming to Europe and asylum policy is being handled.

Distributing refugees – Anywhere, but not here!

Since the beginning of this year, more than 75.000 refugees have arrived at Italian shores alone, barely escaping with their bare lives. They hope to escape from war, death and terror by trying to start a new life in Europe; to work and live in peace. Instead, they are locked in overcrowded refugee camps under atrocious conditions, stuck in bureaucratic procedures, not knowing if they can stay or not. Some paid enormous sums to trafficking organizations – all their savings -, leaving them with only the clothes they were wearing.

In order to prevent uncontrolled refugee movements to other EU countries, France temporarily suspended the Schengen Agreement and re-established border controls at its borders to Italy. Even though Italy is struggling to cope with the masses of refugees, other EU countries show little or no commitment to support or to act in a humanitarian way. EU policy makers discuss how to distribute the refugees, but as for now, not everyone is willing to cooperate.

The UK and the Czech Republic are very reluctant to accept more refugees, while Germany at least showed willingness to accept 9.000 refugees. Nevertheless, it is currently highly discussed in German public how and where to redistribute them inside Germany. Many municipalities don’t have sufficient or appropriate accommodations; they need to be built from scratch. And even if they have accommodations for at least a couple of refugees, they are instantly under attack by right wing extremists. A map displayed by Google, showing all the locations of refugee accommodations throughout Germany, was just recently taken offline again, as critics fear that right wingers might use these information to coordinate their attacks against refugees.

Scarily, the numbers of arson attacks and bulling refugees have been increasing in the past weeks, and the populist right wing “PEGIDA” movement openly calls to block any further settlement of refugee accommodations.

Fortress Europe – Sealing off the borders

Hungary even goes a step further: the government under its increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has started to build a wall alongside the Hungarian-Serbian border this week. Many refugees use Serbia as a transit country to enter the EU, and Hungary as an EU border country, has taken drastic, almost illegal measures to keep them out of their country. Xenophobia, racisms, and even antisemitism are increasing in Hungary, so is Anti-Islamism in many other EU countries. 

From a legal point of view, many EU member states are violating the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Tragically, the Dublin Accords state that EU members are entitled to deport refugees back to the country from where they have entered EU territory. Italy, Greece, Spain and Hungary, as border countries, are completely overwhelmed with the numbers that they decide to either take drastic measures to seal off the borders, or calling for help for redistribution.

Sticking to the laws

Outsourcing asylum seekers is a very common practice in the EU, and the 2003 adopted Dublin Regulation states that, whenever an asylum seeker applies for asylum in an EU country, it has to be evaluated if he/she is entitled to stay under asylum seeking status, or if his/her application will be rejected and the refugee has to be deported. This includes the so called “safe 3rd country requirement”: if a refugee from a by the EU designated safe 3rd country applies for asylum, it is almost certain that his/her application will be rejected.

But even countries declared as either safe third countries or safe countries of origin do have questionable conditions regarding protection of ethnic or religious minorities, even some EU member states are breaching existing legal frameworks for the protection of minorities, such as for the Romani people in Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, or even Hungary.

Germany has one of the highest numbers of asylum seekers: not only regarding applications, but also in terms of approved asylum applications. Nevertheless, taking Merkel’s words back to our minds: “Not everyone can stay…, we cannot grant asylum to everyone”. German conservatism has a very restrictive policy towards integration of foreigners – not only regarding refugees and asylum seekers, but also towards those who want to live permanently and work in Germany for job or private reasons.

Even highly qualified migrants living in Germany struggle to get equal job opportunities as their university degrees are not acknowledged as they “cannot be compared to the German education standards”. Local administrations for foreigners ensure to provide German courses though integration courses to foreigners, but they struggle to approve equal job treatment to them, even though they are willing to integrate and have learned proper German. 

The humanitarian disaster

Just very recently, the Hamburg Football Club stopped the installation of a refugee camp on its own car park. Greek authorities are completely helpless looking at the refugee masses on the Greek islands. The humanitarian situation is even so bad that there is not even enough food for everyone, in Austria refugees have to sleep in tents.

It is not clear yet if Reem and her family can stay in Germany, but it would be a small sign of humanitarian empathy to allow them to stay. It would be an actual sign of empathy and humanitarian decency to have a more open approach towards refugees, instead of deporting them or keeping them out of Europe.

The numbers of refugees will increase in the future, and continuing with the current refugee and asylum policy will just build-up more pressure in the pot, until it explodes.

The fortress has just started to crumble.

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